Onward with the Halloween season! I’m sure everyone’s keeping themselves in the mood by watching their favorite monster movies. I’m also sure that you have a particular favorite monster. For some it’s the vampire, others may like the zombie, still others may be all about the Frankenstein monster, but for me I’ve got to go with werewolves. I’m not sure how or when I first learned about them but they’ve always been my favorite of the classic supernatural monsters. You get the legitimate fear that if this thing was real it could do some major damage to you. But you also normally get the pathos from the poor person transforming into the monster, it’s got it all. So let’s get started with the list.
5. The Curse of the Werewolf (1961)
Are you aware of the holy trinity? What about the trinity in comics? That would be the 3 most popular, iconic DC superheroes of all-time, Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman. Well classic monster movies have their own trinity. That being Dracula, Frankenstein, and the Werewolf. Beginning in the 1950’s Hammer Films began remaking many of the classic Universal monster films like “Dracula” and “Frankenstein” with their films “Horror of Dracula” and “Curse of Frankenstein.” The conventional wisdom would be to remake “The Wolf Man” next but the problem was Dracula and Frankenstein were public domain characters but “The Wolf Man” was entirely Universal’s creation. Sure werewolf stories existed long before the 1941 film, (fun fact: werewolves and vampires are the two supernatural creatures said to exist in some form in every culture’s mythology and a recent school of thought thinks they may be people’s attempt to explain the first serial killers) but the typical story of a werewolf in modern times comes overwhelmingly from Universal’s film.
So how did Hammer get around this? They adapted a totally different story, “Werewolf of Paris” by Guy Endore. I have no idea how accurate this film is to the novel but given how loosely adapted “Horror of Dracula” and “Curse of Frankenstein” are it’s a good guess there are some liberties with it. I can’t say it does anything revolutionary with the werewolf story but it is a well told version with good actors playing likable characters. There’s not much to say about it other than the design of the werewolf itself is kind of interesting being all white (albino werewolf?) but other than that it actually looks nowhere near as good as make-up effects from 20 years earlier.
Also the origin of the curse. Most stories are as simple as man gets bitten by wolf and starts changing until they’re finally put out of their misery. Here the origin takes up almost the first 3rd of the story with an old beggar being tricked into asking a lord for food. He is humiliated in front of a crowd of people then finally imprisoned for no good reason. Then after years of being kept in prison and the only kind person in contact with him being a mute woman working in the dungeon, it’s not hard for your heart to go out to these characters. Then the woman is thrown in the same cell as the beggar who almost immediately rapes the woman and somehow this causes the eventual baby (born on Christmas) to become a werewolf once he grows up into a young man… obviously.
4. Teen Wolf (1985)
For me there is only ONE “Teen Wolf.” I haven’t seen nor care about the current TV show. For those who have never heard of this film it’s about a high school teenager played by Michael J. Fox. He’s not terribly popular nor is the school’s basketball team that he plays on. He had been noticing some changes going on in his body until one particularly stressed out night he transforms into a werewolf but unlike most stories his mind is completely unaffected by it. He tries to keep it in check but during a basketball game he “wolfs” out in front of everyone in school. The student body sees one of its own transform into a monster right before them and… all decide he’s the coolest kid in school. Also he becomes an amazing basketball player because…BECAUSE. Then in typical high school movie fashion after having all of this newfound popularity thrust upon him, he must learn what’s truly important in life.
Now you might be reading that summary and think to yourselves, “thats the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard.” But here’s the thing, I can’t disagree with you. I can’t actually defend this movie in any meaningful critical analysis kind of way. It is a dumb, dumb, DUMB comedy. By all rights “The Curse of the Werewolf” is a superior film. But do you know what this film does have? Charm, and in my opinion charm can take you FAR in movies. It’s hard to explain without having seen the films in question but movies like this or “The Last Starfighter” clearly have problems but you find yourself not caring because they’re just so damn charming.
It probably also helps that the film is funny, no comic masterpiece or anything but still funny. I’d normally say it doesn’t take itself too seriously and most of the time I’d say that’s true (basketball playing werewolf?) but then it does just go really dark out of nowhere (the bully’s dad apparently killed Fox’s mother werewolf) but it never gets resolved. The film is just full of stuff that is so polar opposite and should not work together but again it’s that charm that makes you not care. All of the actors make their parts likable. I’m not even sure if the filmmakers could explain why this film worked and people responded to it. It’s been over decade since I first saw while channel surfing and I still can’t explain why I like it. It’s just a nice little film and sometimes that’s all you need.
3. An American Werewolf in London (1981)
1981 is often considered the best year for werewolf movies as it gave us “Wolfen,” “The Howling,” and “An American Werewolf in London” all showing werewolves in modern settings and showcasing fantastic make-up effects. However to be totally honest “The Howling” will not appear on this list, I don’t care for the film. But I love “An American Werewolf in London” which is a truly great blend of horror and comedy. The story is about two american boys backpacking across Europe and find themselves lost in the english countryside. In a village pub they get hints of something sinister until they’re finally told to leave and warned “keep off the moors.” They get lost into the moors and are attacked by a werewolf. One boy is killed and the other is seriously injured. Waking up in a hospital he is greeted by his dead friend who warns him that he must kill himself or else he’ll become a werewolf. He of course thinks it’s just a dream until he starts transforming and the only one who may be able to save him is a kindly nurse he has recently started a relationship with.
As much as I love horror/comedy classics like “Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein” they are sort of two films stitched together, done brilliantly so both styles compliment each other, but two different films all the same. This film is different though. It’s a consistently blended film so it never quite feels like “okay here’s a purely comedic scene and now here’s a purely horror scene.” Most of the scenes really do find this perfect balance between the comedy and the horror. A great example of this would be all of the scenes of Griffin Dunne’s character returning a ghost that only the main character played by David Naughton can see and each time the character appears he’s getting more and more decomposed but his dialog is funny even with all the bloodied ripped skin hanging off his face. Fun fact, my mom dragged my dad out of the theater when this scene first happened while on one of their dates. Not surprising for my mother but what really shocked me about the story is that my dad would apparently want to see the film in the first place.
One of the biggest highlights of the movie is Rick Baker’s Oscar winning make-up. This was actually the first film to win for best make-up and it so deserved it. Up to this point in films human to werewolf transformations were more like going to into a trance. Here in the GREATEST WEREWOLF TRANSFORMATION scene EVER, we see just how painful something like this would have to be. David is screaming in agony as his bones and muscles stretch and contort into this new form. After all these years nothing has ever come close to it. “Van Helsing” tried an interesting spin with the monster coming from within by ripping it’s own skin off to change and even the remake “The Wolfman” clearly took it’s cues from “American Werewolf” but both were undercut by the poor CGI. However beyond the effects, this film is just a lot of fun and again you care about all the characters. It’s so tragic to see how much David and the nurse are falling for one another. The comedy always works and never undercuts the horror. In fact most of the time it helps it. Another thing I always liked about this film is how it seemed to suggest a larger, older story going on in the background, the possibilities for sequels, or other stories could really be something. Although after seeing the sequel “An American Werewolf in Paris”… maybe not.